The conspiracy theory of the peace process is a dangerous myth

Originally published at SpinWatch and OurKingdom.

There's no doubt that the Queen's meeting with Martin McGuinness this week was gesture politics, and even if the historic handshake was a profoundly meaningful gesture, a certain weary cynicism is understandable after two decades of the peace process.

Some reactions to the visit, however, reflect a deeper malaise, a narrative that sees the peace process as less about democratic reconciliation and more about shadowy manipulation.  This emerging orthodoxy has taken root among a diverse coalition of conservatives, unionists and dissident republicans.

Thus a republican like Anthony McIntyre can write:

Norman Tebbit, who survived the Brighton bomb in 1984, explained it succinctly: McGuinness and Sinn Féin have "now accepted the sovereignty of Her Majesty over Northern Ireland". Strange bedfellows, perhaps, but the Daily Telegraph is not out of sync with peeved republicans when it proclaims "the British establishment completes the decommissioning of Martin McGuinness".

Tomorrow's event will be dressed up in the discourse of the peace process, which invariably serves to mask the truth.

The revisionist view of the 'truth' behind the mask is arguably reflected in Toby Harnden's interpretation of Ed Moloney's Secret History of the IRA:

Did Gerry Adams subvert the Provisional IRA by lying to his comrades and plotting to frustrate their goal of a united Ireland? Is Martin McGuinness a high-level informer who has been working for the British for the past two decades?…

…There are even hints that the British intelligence services and successive governments might have helped remove those IRA men impeding Adams and used "agents of influence" to steer republicans towards politics. 

More recently, the revisionist narrative has extended to the improbable claim that Mrs Thatcher offered a deal acceptable to the 1981 hunger strikers, only for Sinn Féin to block the settlement, sacrificing the lives of the prisoners for the sake of electoral gain. At the start of this year, there were suggestions that new documents from the National Archives backed up this proposition.

Yet a fuller inspection of the 1981 files reveals material which explodes not only the hunger strike claim but also the wider conspiracy theory of the peace process. 

A key document in this respect is an intelligence-based analysis of the IRA prepared for Mrs Thatcher on 16 March 1981 by Northern Ireland Office (NIO) official David Ranson. Ranson is known from other sources to have been a senior MI5 officer, who went on to head the service's counter-terrorism branch. His role at the NIO and his attendance at top security meetings suggest that at this period he was the Director and Co-ordinator of Intelligence, the senior intelligence advisor to the Northern Ireland Secretary.

If British intelligence had been using agents of influence to undermine the republican movement by nudging it towards electoral politics, Ranson would have been among the key officials involved. In fact, however, he warned against the assumptions underlying such a strategy:

From time to time and in particular at the beginning of this year – we have considered whether and under what circumstances the Provisionals might switch the focus of their efforts to the political front – it has sometimes been thought that a consequence of this might be a reduction in the amount of energy and effort they put into their terrorist campaign.

The reality is of course that they have for some months been devoting increasing effort to political action, while continuing the "military campaign" at the lower level which their now limited capabilities permit…

…We have tended to regard the involvement of the Provisionals in political activity as a development to be encouraged. but it is a development that requires a response from Government, as their terrorist activities receive a response…

…to take no action in the face of the Provisionals effective political campaign centred on the hunger strikes is not standing firm, but is admitting defeat in the political arena. This will be proved to be so as the Provisionals gather wider support with serious implications for security and law and order.

In warning of the danger that republicans might defeat the Government "in the political arena", Ranson was acknowledging a possibility unknown to the conspiracy theory of the peace process, in which talk of politics as an arena of struggle is simply a cover for a sellout pre-cooked by the spooks.

In fact, far from using the hunger strike to nudge republicans towards politics, the British Government consciously took an opposite course. this emerges with breath-taking clarity from a crucial memo in which Northern Ireland Secretary Humphrey Atkins sets out the options for Mrs Thatcher on 6 July 1981, two days before the death of hunger striker Joe McDonnell.

..5. In the light of all this we would appear to have five courses open to us. I have thought it right at what may be a critical point to set out all the options, not merely those that are acceptable.

6. First. We can continue to stand absolutely firm as a matter of policy and in the hope that some or all of the hunger strikers will give up their fast in spite of the instructions of the Provisional leaders. If they did so, it would be a severe blow to the Provisionals (even though, if they saw it coming, they might of course make a virtue of necessity by leaping in with instructions to end the strike).

7. Second, we could try to reach a settlement on whatever lines may be indicated by the [Irish Commission for Justice and Peace] in their statement, ignoring the message from the Provisionals. In doing this we should again be relying on the willingness of the strikers to go against the PIRA leadership.

8. Third, we could seek to reach a settlement on ICJP lines simultaneously showing the terms to the Provisionals, so as to try to swing their leadership behind the strikers. There would be a good deal of jockeying for position as between the ICJP, who would very understandably want some credit for any settlement, and the Provisionals, who regard the ICJP as an intrusion and an irrelevance and who would be looking for a way of claiming a "victory" for the strikers.

9. Fourth, we could drop the ICJP and talk to the Provisionals on the grounds that they are much more likely to be in a position to make an agreement stick with the strikers than the ICJP.

10. Fifth, if the ICJP fails, and we will not talk to the Provisionals, and no prisoner will complain to the European Commission on Human Rights, we could, as we envisaged on Friday, call in the International Committee of the Red Cross.


11. My judgement, and that of Michael Alison who has been close to the latest moves with the ICJP, is that the best course is to stand firm. There is always the chance that the strike will, in whole or in part, collapse of itself, leaving the Provisional leadership humiliated. However, while recommending this course, I must point out that it carries certain risks and disadvantages:

(i) It may end the hunger strike; it is unlikely to end the main "blanket" protest (on which over 400 prisoners are still engaged).

(ii) It could lead to a resumption of the "dirty" protest.

(iii) It could lead to a later resumption of the hunger strike by other prisoners. 

(iv) The Provisionals need to settle the prisons problem on terms they can represent as acceptable to them if they are to go on – as we know some of them wish to do – to consider an end of the current terrorist campaign. A leadership which has "lost" on the prisons is in no position to do this.

(v) We should be discouraging the Provisionals from switching from terrorist to political activity at the very moment when we know they have begun to find political action attractive.

The Atkins memo presents a picture which is completely at odds with the conspiracy theory of the peace process, in two key respects.

Firstly, because the revisionist version holds that the republican leadership was prepared to sacrifice the prisoners and their demands to advance their political project. What emerges from the memo is that a defeat for the prisoners was also a defeat for that project. The IRA could not win grassroots support for a ceasefire without the prospect of prisoner releases, and the abolition of political status made that prospect more distant.

Secondly, because the revisionist thesis holds that the British Government was trying to nudge republicans towards politics. The memo shows that the Government opted to break the strike in the explicit belief that it would weaken those within republicanism seeking a political direction.

The strike did ultimately collapse as Atkins anticipated, though only after ten deaths, when Father Denis Faul persuaded families to seek medical intervention. It is impossible not to wonder how many lives, from Joe McDonnell onwards, might have been saved if Atkins and Thatcher had chosen to negotiate.

In that respect, there is perhaps a parallel with Thatcher's stance on the Falklands a year later, of which Anthony Barnett wrote recently. In neither case did Thatcher's sense of national greatness allow her to accept a negotiated settlement that might have saved lives.

Yet in Ireland, at least, her successors did ultimately find a way beyond the Falklands Syndrome. That is perhaps the real significance of this week's meeting. The conspiracy theory of the peace process serves only to obscure it, sustaining the old myths of war and betrayal, against a new narrative of reconciliation, far more relevant to the world in which both Britain and Ireland find themselves today.






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